5. In the Name of the FatherJim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father is an inspiring, mostly true story about how five men were railroaded by the British police for an IRA bombing. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a fine performance as the lead character – someone who is definitely “flawed” (and that’s putting it mildly) but was not guilty of what he was charged and convicted with – a crime he confessed to after suffering a brutal beating at the hands of the police. Pete Postlewaite is even better as his father – a hardworking man, who did absolutely nothing wrong and winds up in jail right alongside his son. This is a true story, although one Sheridan admits he changed things in order to make a better story (as is the case with pretty much every fact-based movie). It’s a fine film – as always, Day-Lewis is wonderful – even if it’s more than a little formulaic, and out of the five excellent films nominated this year, clearly the weakest link.
4. The FugitiveI was going to say that they don’t nominate films like The Fugitive much anymore – but then again, they rarely ever nominated films like this, so perhaps I shouldn’t bother. Andrew Davis’ audience pleasing thriller, with Harrison Ford as an innocent man on the run from Tommy Lee Jones’ US Marshall (in an Oscar winning performance) is pretty much a perfect mainstream thriller. This is visceral and exciting mainstream filmmaking at its finest – and even if we can see where the film is going before it gets there, it is so well handled that we hardly care. I’m not sure why Davis didn’t go on to a brighter career – only 6 films in the past 20 years (and none since 2006) – he proved here to be an excellent director of action. Perhaps it was just a fluke, but he got at least one film right in his career.
3. The Remains of the DayOf all the Merchant/Ivory films, The Remains of the Day is my favorite. It features what could possibly be the best performance of Anthony Hopkins career, as a butler who has so single mindedly served his master over the years, there is nothing else in his life. He is in love with the housekeeper, played by Emma Thompson, but can never admit her feelings towards her. His master is clearly a Nazi sympathizer as war with Germany inches closer, but the butler simply keeps his head down, and goes about his business. He’s terrified of human emotion, and cannot bring himself to admit it. The Merchant/Ivory films have a reputation for being stuffy costume dramas – and at their worst, that’s what they were. But at their best – and The Remains of the Day is the very best – they get to a deep, stirring emotional truth underneath all that civility. A masterful film.
2. The PianoJane Campion’s The Piano marked only the second time in history a woman was nominated for Best Director – and it deserves every ounce of praise it received at the time. It’s somewhat sad that Campion never hit these heights again – but with The Piano she has made a pretty much perfect film. Holly Hunter won an Oscar for playing a mute woman, who comes to New Zealand from Scotland to marry a bachelor (Sam Neill) – who she finds cold and emotionless (although to Neill’s credit, he makes him more multi-dimensional than he first seems). Harvey Keitel is also excellent as their neighbor – who slowly and methodically seduces Hunter – who is not portrayed as a victim, but as a woman who makes every decision consciously. Anna Paquin also won a richly deserved Oscar – it is perhaps the best child performance I have ever seen – as Hunter’s daughter, who behaves as a child would, even if she may be smarter than the rest of the characters. The period detail is perfect; the cinematography dark and cold, the writing (which Campion did win an Oscar for) is bold and original. In short, The Piano is a masterpiece – in many other years, it would easily be my favorite.
1. Schindler’s List (WINNER)Twenty years later, it still feels undeniable that the Academy made the right choice in giving Schindler’s List the top prize – not only was it the best film nominated, it was also easily the best film of the year. Much like 12 Years a Slave is not the “definitive” slave film, Schindler’s List is not the “definitive” Holocaust movie – because such a thing cannot reasonably be expected to exist. What Spielberg does in this film though is show some of the horrors of the Holocaust – and how one, flawed man tried in his own way to protect a few people. Liam Neeson is great in the central role – but Ralph Fiennes is even better as the amoral Amon Goeth. Spielberg’s direction is perfect – the decision to shoot in black and white, save for one heartbreaking sequence, unquestionably the right one. The Academy made Spielberg wait a long time to win an Oscar (those who bizarrely think that David O. Russell is overdue should remember it took Spielberg 18 years after Jaws to finally win – not to mention Scorsese 30 years after Taxi Driver), but they unquestionably gave it to him for the right film. One of the best winners in Academy history.
What They Should Have Nominated: They actually did fairly well this year – not only did my favorite film of the year win – 3 of the nominees were also in my top five. They would have been joined by Robert Altman’s excellent ensemble film Short Cuts and Martin Scorsese’s masterful costume drama, The Age of Innocence (although perhaps that was too close to The Remains of the Day for both to get nominated). I cannot complain too much about this lineup though. Part of me would have loved to see them nominate Mike Leigh’s Naked.